In 2017, the NHL partnered with the You Can Play Project, a group dedicated to combating homophobia in sports, to create the "Hockey Is For Everyone" campaign. "Our clubs, our players, and our fans are committed to welcoming everyone to hockey," said Gary Bettman, announcing the initiative. The move, though not without its embarrassments, was a small but necessary step to building a more inclusive fanbase.
It's a small and easy way to bring in more LGBTQIA+ fans. Certainly, not from the kindness of the NHL's hearts. Pride Nights sell tickets, and Pride merchandise moves units (even if that merch ends up being less progressive than it intends), thereby increasing the bottom line.
Unless scooping up those extra dollars generates a public relations nightmare for your league, that is. After seven players publicly went on record as not wishing to wear Pride-themed jerseys in warmups (with several more teams canceling planned Pride displays, presumably to avoid the same) the NHL and NHLPA came together and said: Okay, no more Pride for the players.
In addition to removing the recent standard of practice of having players wear Pride-themed jerseys during warm-ups, the NHL is going so far as to ban players from individually supporting the LGBTQIA+ community by wearing Pride tape on their sticks. In warm-ups. On Pride Nights.
Asked by Daily Faceoff's Matt Larkin why there was such a wide-spanning ban on players showing support, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly explained, "We just don't want to put other players in a tough spot simply because they don't choose to join."
There are, of course, many inherent contradictions and hypocrisies that are embedded in this controversy. One would be citing Christian beliefs as a reason to not participate in an innocuous acknowledgment of the humanity of the LGBTQIA+ community, despite one of its two main tenents calls for people to "love thy neighbor as thyself." So is the NHL's unwillingness to have players feel compelled to make a "political" statement in supporting LGBTQIA+ fans, yet have them participate in the inherently political national anthem ceremonies pre-game.
But one of the biggest contradictions is the league promoting the idea that Hockey Is For Everyone, then backtracking in a way that says "Hockey Isn't For Everyone," as Outsports' Cyd Ziegler detailed this week, and Akim Aliu wrote in 2020. These are valid and good hypocrisies to point out, but there's a bigger contradiction at the heart of "Hockey Is For Everyone." Namely, the fact that it can't be for everyone.
It's understandable why the league would use "Everyone" in their diversity campaign. It's as inclusive as possible, and that might be the best way to communicate that. Others can debate or decide that. But taken literally, it implies that hockey is a big tent where every fan can co-exist in harmony. It's a nice thought, and it'd be great if it were true. As it stands, though, it isn't.
This is all happening with the dropback of decreased tolerance for LGBTQIA+, and specifically transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer people, in the United States. Florida's state government is one of the more infamous drivers of this, having passed a sweeping "Don't Say Gay" bill earlier this year, but they're hardly alone. In 2023, 23 states have passed legislation targeting transgender people, making existing in public life difficult. Those are just the ones that passed.
This legislation coincides with an increase in violence against the LGBTQIA+ community, leading the Human Rights Campaign to declare a National State of Emergency. Famously, the threat of violence against employees led Target to pull their Pride merchandise from stores this summer. Again, all this serves to eliminate LGBTQIA+ people from public spaces.
That's why hockey can not be for Everyone. The tent can not contain the LGBTQIA+ community and the fans who would rather that community not exist. Perhaps the NHL and its lawyers believe they've found a neutral way to sidestep a culture war issue that proved to be a PR thorn in their side last year.
The alienation its Queer fanbase and their allies are feeling and the online celebration of bigots within the fanbase betray the fact that they can't. It's impossible. Whether they want to admit it or not, the NHL decided Hockey can not be for Everyone. More pointedly, they implicitly decided who, exactly, it was for and who, exactly, they would protect: the bigots on their benches, in their stands, and watching their game on TV from a moment of discomfort.
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